This city battled the elements and won – not once, but twice

Galveston is back, just 18 months after being devastated by Hurricane Ike. It was the same story 108 years ago, when the Texan island rebuilt itself after the Great Storm. Adrian Mourby reports
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The Independent Travel

On tree-lined Broadway, the oldest houses wear plaques like medals. This particular clapboard structure sports two. One reads "1900" and the other "Ike".

The first indicates that the house miraculously survived the greatest natural disaster to ever hit the United States, a 20-foot tidal surge that swept across an island no more than six feet above sea level drowning more than 6,000 people in one terrible night in 1900. The second marks the point that the Gulf of Mexico reached when it inundated Galveston 108 years later in 2008 during Hurricane Ike. The blue line on that plaque is eight feet above where I stand on this sidewalk.

It's a bright spring morning, 18 months after Ike, and I'm amazed at the extent to which Galveston is back in business. This month, the historic downtown area will be mounting an ArtWalk, where galleries, restaurants and businesses will host artists from across the world. In May, the city is reviving its Bathing Beauties Pageant from the 1920s. Contestants will be judged down on the shoreline east of the 33rd Street jetty. Categories will include both vintage and contemporary swimwear. A number of male beauties have announced their intention to take part. Galveston is not only committed to equal opportunities, it boasts one of Texas's more active gay communities.

"Galveston is back because Galveston just got on and raised the money," says Teri who is standing in front of me polishing the windows of her fine little Broadway mansion. "We didn't wait for government handouts like they did in New Orleans."

This is a remarkable little city-island. I've been here a few days now, and on every page of my notebook I see two words scribbled over and over again: "resilient" and "colourful". The Grand Opera House, which lost its cupola in the 1900 storm, was under water up to row L during Ike. The orchestra pit was completely flooded and a Steinway floated away.

"But we were back in business within 112 days, "says Robyn, who showed me round. "And now our Grand Dame looks better than ever, don't you think?"

As for colourful – who can miss "The Purple House" on 25th Street? It was painted in Mardi Gras colours by Robert Manoir, owner of the premiere gay bar in town, to cheer up the first, slightly muddy, carnival after Ike. Today, its pink, purple and green fascia has become something of a photo op on the tourist trail.

The Tremont House Hotel on Mechanic Street, where I'm staying, is also immaculately restored, though there are photos in the lobby of the ground floor strewn with floating, dirty rattan furniture. This building is, in fact, the third Tremont Hotel to stand in Galveston . The first was destroyed in the Great Storm of 1900, the second burned down and this one – an old dry goods warehouse near the port – was opened in 1985.

The Texan billionaire George P Mitchell paid for the conversion. He then paid for the hotel to be drained, replastered, repainted and refurbished after Ike. Mitchell owns 20 historic properties in Galveston and functions like a one-man National Trust in his home town. He certainly gives the lie to the image of the philistine Texan oilman.

In the afternoon, I walk along the seawall. Without this huge concrete lip, the damage from Ike would have been catastrophic. It was built after the Great Storm at a phenomenal early 20th-century cost of $10m. That price included the "grade-raising" project, which lifted up on stilts all the buildings still standing and then in-filled below them so that Galveston island was now up to 15 feet above sea level.

The seawall is a place for joggers, dog-walkers, and cars on their way to and from Walmart. Walmart itself stands, bland and blowsy, on the site of the old St Mary's Orphanage, washed away in 1900. The nuns roped together 90 of their children, hoping they would stand a better chance when the big wave came, but instead they pulled each other down. On this south side of the island there is nothing of pre-1900 Galveston left. The original Tremont, a gracious wooden palace of a hotel, facing on to the beach, just exploded, splintering into a shower of planks. Today its foundations lie somewhere off shore. The Great Storm removed two complete city blocks.

What I see from the seawall is the Galveston that was reborn after 1900. The Galvez Hotel was built in 1911 opposite the famous Balinese Room, once one of the most notorious gambling dens in Texas . The Galvez is still there, though its new basement spa (which had only just opened when Ike struck) had to be completely pumped out and redecorated.

Sadly, the Balinese has gone. This louche legend stood on a pier extending 600 feet out into the Gulf of Mexico. In its time, the Balinese gave top billing to Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx and Duke Ellington. For nearly 25 years it fought a hilarious battle with the Texas Rangers, who could never catch anyone actually gambling. Part of the problem was that the Rangers had to cross a bridge to get on to Galveston and someone at the bridge always tipped off the Balinese Room. As a result cards and chips were always well stashed by the time the Rangers arrived. If the Rangers were in danger of arriving too soon, the management would arrange for the danceband at the front of the pier to strike up with "The Eyes of Texas". Rangers were obliged to stand to attention whenever it was played. After 25 years of frustration the Rangers finally got wise and in 1957 raided by sea and the Balinese Room had to go over to more legal kinds of entertainment.

During Hurricane Ike the surge lifted the whole 600-foot pier off its pillars and smashed it into Murdoch's Souvenirs pier, which in turn demolished Hooters pier. Of the three structures, only Murdoch's (built in 1910) has been reconstructed, and it has just reopened. It looks every inch 100 years old again and is full of coloured shells and toy sharks and all the glorious tat we buy on a seaside holiday.

Heading south-west down the seawall you can't miss the Flagship Hotel, though I dearly wish one could. The Flagship was a 1960s anomaly, the only hotel built out on a pier. It is even more of an anomaly now as the only Galveston hotel with a large section of its side wall missing, thanks to Ike. A question mark hangs over the fate of this concrete block. According to RoShelle Gaskins of the Visitor and Conventions Bureau, the owners are proposing to turn it into a world-class attraction. "There'll be a first-class hotel, a stunning pool with outdoor cabanas, a Ferris wheel, and double-decker carousel," she says. Personally, I wish Ike had pushed a bit harder.

Not everything is upbeat on Galveston today. At the Railroad Museum on Rosenberg I find Morris Gould, the director, working out of a Portakabin and still raising funds to reopen. Morris tells me he came back in after Ike to find that the locomotives had been lifted up and moved around as if some giant child had trashed its train set.

"Yet a cabinet containing $60,000 worth of railway china had floated round and come back down safely with not a piece broken!" Books and records were damaged though. "And silver took a tremendous hit. We had to spend days cleaning it by hand." In the immediate aftermath looters made off with a lot of valuable parts used for restoring old locomotives. Morris is still grieving over the thought of what got sold off for scrap, but he hid $100,000 worth of museum valuables in the gents toilets. "Nobody thought of looking in there!"

But most of the island looks fresh and busy. The Great Storm Theater on 21st Street is located on the first floor so rode out Ike. It soon reopened its tape slide show of the 1900 disaster. Next to it is moored the Elissa, a working three-masted sailing ship built in 1877 that is the official tall ship of Texas and a big tourist attraction. In September 2008 it just rose up 10 feet at its moorings and came back down again. By the airport, the Lone Star Flight Museum was able to fly out 10 of its Second World War planes just in time. Those planes that couldn't take off disappeared under nine feet of water. Mementoes from the Hall of Fame were strewn across the airport runways, but today it's back in business with kids clambering inside Lockheed bombers and admiring Bearcats, Corsairs and a single British Spitfire. Apparently, you can even arrange to go up in one of these planes and have your loved-one's ashes scattered in the clouds.

Most of the best places to eat in Galveston spent some time under water during Ike. It's almost like a badge of honour. But they've reopened, too. Rudy & Paco's, next to the Grand Opera, had to be completely redecorated, as was the pink clapboard Mosquito Café (motto: One Bite Is All It Takes). "We had six and a half feet of water in the restaurant and four and a half feet of water in our home," says owner Patricia Rennick. "Although this is not something that I would wish upon anyone, I feel that I was blessed by being able to see the kindness in others. When we reopened, we had lines out the door for weeks." Patricia and her husband are now expanding the business. "Yes, we're opening a bakery across the street. Being a fourth generation Galvestonian, I know that Galveston will come back, and be ever better."

Compact Facts

How to get there

Continental Airlines (0845 607 6760; continental.com/uk) offers return flights to Houston, an hour's drive from Galveston, from £399. Holiday Autos (0871 472 5229; holidayautos.co.uk) rents cars from £149 a week. Tremont House Hotel (00 1 409 763 0300; wyndhamtremonthouse.com) offers doubles from $113 (£74.50) a night.

Further informaton

Galveston tourist information (galveston.com).

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